Saturday, July 07, 2007

Incarnational Ministry, Part III

My Personal Experience with Relocation

About eight or nine years ago—back before I had ever heard of John Perkins, Christian community development, or even the theology of relocation, my wife and I were both working in the inner-city of Denver. Every morning, I would drive her to whichever elementary school she would be substitute teaching at for the day and then I would head over to my own job at Curtis Park Community Center which was located in Five Points--one of Denver's poorest and most dangerous urban neighborhoods.

One of the things that my wife and I quickly realized was that nearly all of the people that we worked with were like us; they lived in comfortable affluent suburban areas and commuted into the city to work with the so-called poor. There was, however, one crucial exception to that rule that challenged me to think about the significance of relocation, even before I knew that others were already promoting that as an effective strategy for urban missions. My boss at Curtis Park Community Center was the only employee—at least the only employee at the administrative level—who actually resided in the community that we were trying to serve.

Without getting into a detailed explanation, let me just say that one of the major thrusts of Curtis Park Community Center was to provide training and support for our clients—primarily single mothers on welfare—that would enable them to get off of welfare and into the workforce. Anyway, one of the things that I eventually realized is that when our clients learned that my boss was also their neighbor, he was able to much more quickly and easily establish a good rapport with them. It’s not that the rest of us weren’t able to establish good working relationships with our clients; it’s just that my boss had significantly greater credibility with them than we did because he lived in their neighborhood and was viewed as a community insider whereas the rest of us were viewed as community outsiders.

Over the past three years, my wife and I have become increasingly convicted about the need to relocate to the Farm Road district of Nassau in order that we might be able to minister more effectively to the city. So when we returned to Nassau last year following our home assignment, we moved into an apartment located right off Collins Avenue. This is approximately a five to ten minute drive away from Emmaus Baptist Church--the Haitian congregation where Estela works--as well as Atlantic College and Theological Seminary, where I currently teach. Lest anybody get the wrong idea, I should point out that I do not consider our current home to be an example of full-relocation but rather a compromise that is best viewed as a semi-relocation. For us to truly relocate—to truly follow the example of Jesus Christ himself—we would really need to live someplace in the midst of Farm Road like Hay Street, Lewis Street, or McCollough Corner where we could fully establish our presence in the Farm Road community itself.

That being said, we have found that living on Collins Avenue—rather than suburban Stapledon Gardens where we used to live—has been an important first step in a journey that is slowly opening the doors for greater ministry involvement here in the city. My wife, for example, is now providing tutoring and informal mentoring to a number of young people from D.W. Davis Junior High School. And just this month, we’ve begun hosting a series of marriage enrichment classes for a number of young couples from Emmaus Baptist Church. Both of these ministries are being conducted from our home. And we’re able to that because we live in a location that is readily accessible to folks who are living here in the city. If we were still living in Stapledon Gardens instead of Collins Avenue, it would not be such a simple matter for inner-city school kids to drop by our house on their way from school or for members of our church to stop by on their way home from work.

Coming Next: Getting Out of the Church and Into the Community

Part I: Introduction
Part II: The Biblical Basis for Relocation

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